I've been thinking a lot lately about decisions and choices.
I was chatting with a young startup enthusiast recently and they made a comment that struck me. It was something along the lines of "kill yourself for a few years now and you'll be set for life later."
This type of sentiment about startups is pretty rampant these days. The funny thing is, I don't think it used to be. When I speak to older generations about entrepreneurship the general sentiment is that you're better off getting a steady job. Obviously the advent of the web startup with the extremely low barriers to entry and initial capital requirements has a great deal to do with this. On a relative basis, it's pretty easy these days. The problem is ... while it maybe “easy” to code up a website, it's not easy to make it a viable business.
This young startup enthusiast's notion of what a startup is all about is troubling. Startups are not easy and as a million other people have said, you are more likely to fall flat on your face when you go after that idea. The point here is not that it isn't worth doing, but that you damn sure better have something you are passionately chasing . Since chances are you will hit the wall on this you better enjoy the journey and not be 100% focused on the end. You might not find that end.
It's your life we're talking about here. You get one chance at this. Every decision you make is a decision to leave something behind and pursue something else. This idea that founding a company is somehow such an obvious path to riches is dangerous. Often this sentiment is followed by such brash statements as...
- "Why would I want to work in some big bureaucratic company?"
- "I could never work a 9-5 job?"
- "How can anyone work in a job for 30 years to save for retirement?"
I'm not going to argue that any one of these sentiments is wrong or right. What I do take issue with is when people without perspective are automatically dismissive. Let me explain by way of a few examples.
A very good high school friend of mine (back when Kurt Cobain was introducing us to the smell of teen spirit) was the valedictorian in our class. This guy was and still is an amazing combination of super smart and very hard working. He went off to a great small liberal arts college and did very well there as well. When he graduated he made a very specific decision. He decided that he wanted to take advantage of the fact he was young and healthy at that point in his life. He went off and got a job that paid the bills so he could ski, climb and generally enjoy the outdoors as much as possible. 5 years of this, and he decided he'd skied enough powder and climbed enough peaks to be ready for a career. So he spent the next 3+ years doing pre-med work at night and then went off to Med School with 30 well in the rear view. He's now finishing up his residency and looking forward to starting his career as he's closing in on 40. He's not some dummy that screwed up by having fun when he was young and is now paying the price. He chose to be there.
Another former colleague of mine is a big company man through and through. He's been cranking away for 10+ years at one of the biggest companies in the world. He's done quite well for himself, climbing the ladder and making quite a bit of money along the way. He'll have no problem paying for his 3 kids to go to college. Retirement should be no problem for him. He's got a great home and a beautiful family. It took a lot of sacrifice to get where he is and he'll still be plugging away for quite awhile. He knows it and is happy to do it. He's not some dumb corporate drone or wimp who couldn't escape. He chose to be there.
These two individuals have made choices along the way that have meant turning their back on other things. They are both happy with where they are though. Neither one of them went through an exercise to determine the best path would be for them, and they are both in a great spot.
The point here is that there are many paths to success and more importantly paths to happiness. If you drink the Kool-aid too much on either side of any fence, you may end up missing out on some great opportunities. If you decide to “kill yourself for a few years” that might be all you end up with. A couple of lost years and a bunch of suffering.
This is your life, your shot. Your life is not some risk-reward calculation. There is no diversification in life. You get to make each of the decisions you make one time. Life is about trade-offs. That doesn't mean you might not get a chance to make a similar decision again, but the circumstances will be different every time.
Make your decisions with an open mind and don't expect any of them to be the magical path to anything. It's also damn near impossible to calculate your own personal opportunity loss. So don't waste your time.
Make your decisions and then embrace them with everything you have.